NUCHR Day 3

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Day 3 was rife with panels and this post would be novel length if I went into detail about every speaker and every point they made. So here are some highlights:

  • Are troops the right actors to enforce peace? If peace has to be enforced, is the conflict actually over? Is there such a thing as a post-conflict community?
  • What does local ownership actually mean? International actors should be there to assist, not to replace local leadership (especially concerning the risk of dependency), but is successful local ownership dependent on the quality of local leadership already present? How can that be fostered?

A lot of the speakers I met, while all very friendly and excited to be at the conference, seemed rather jaded. Many were happy about what they and others had accomplished, but there was a definite sense of…not hopelessness, but realistic somberness about the way they described their work. UN peacemaker Murray McCullough, however, was a fountain of British optimism and hilarity (as a side note: my interactions with British people over the last year have exponentially increased my desire to go to England. Soon.) Key quotes include:

You know, at some point you’re going to lose all your money, some bastard is going to break your heart, and your grandparents are going to die, but that’s life.

The first thing you gotta do if you want to get involved with this field, is you just gotta go. I don’t care if you go alone, go in pairs, or go with your boyfriend, you just gotta GO.

Back at Cambridge the ‘human rights’ folk were all either tree-hugger hippie types or stuffy academics with elbow patches on their clothing.

He said this and then noticed that both myself and the man that worked for the Carter Center (who was sitting next to me) had elbow patches. Oops. He also said that as long as we are willing to work for nothing, someone will find something for us to do somewhere. Maybe that will be the plan for after D.C. next year: go somewhere and find someone that will let me do something.

Murray was one of the people who really stood out to me, but there were a few more.

  1. Michael Miklaucic from the National Defense University in Washington D.C. (awesome, awesome place). Michael really stood out to me because he was the only “security guy” at the conference. He was a self-proclaimed “suit” and admitted that what made him different from every other speaker was that he first and foremost cared about the national security interests of the United States. However, what really resonated with me was when he said that they key to integrating conflict resolution and peace building into the upper ranks of the U.S. foreign policy agenda is to understand where the stabilization of certain states and the security interests (not to be confused with material interests) of the U.S. lie. I also liked when he argued that the perfect should never be the enemy of the good because this idea seems to get in the way of a lot of productive ideas that are never actualized for fear of critique.
  2. Libby Hoffman from Fambul Tok. Libby took a radically different approach from Michael. Working in Sierra Leone, she created an organization called Fambul Tok, which promotes truth telling and reconciliation in local villages in Sierra Leone. It operates on the principle of pure consultation, i.e.: what do victims want, what do we have, and what can we do to give them what they want with what we have? And it operates on the grassroots level, identifying local groups as more important than the state. Her organization focuses on the local Sierra Leonean tradition of confronting someone who has wronged you around a bonfire with the entire village present, having both parties tell their sides of the story, and then deciding whether to apologize and forgive. This way, more than any international court of law she argued, is the best way to promote healing after conflict.
  3. Tom Oliver, the keynote speaker. Tom is one of those people that I’m not entirely sure how to describe. Artist? Businessman? Cool person who surfs a lot? He has used his artistic vision and sense of idealism to raise awareness about peace around the world and his talk focused primarily on how its necessary to find peace within yourself to be able to tap into whatever skills you posses so that you can then promote peace elsewhere. Everyone at the conference (save a few of my friends) were incredibly critical of him and his message. They said he was too idealistic, that his message didn’t jive with the tone of the conference, and that he ultimately sounded like a “self-help guy that troubled rich people would listen to” (to use the words of one of the students I spoke to). Frankly, I loved him. He was definitely a bit overly idealistic and perhaps too energetic for most people to handle. But I say more power to him for having an ideal visions for the world and how it should run. I think that people like him, that are energetic, passionate, completely comfortable in their own skin, contagious, and genuine are remarkable people are rare and whoever wants to put them down for being a little more “new-age”, think about what these idealists have accomplished before you knock their method.

The evening ended with a closing banquet, where the Northwestern students who organized the conference thanked the delegates for coming and gave the speakers flowers (which Michael gave to me because he didn’t know what to do with it). Overall, it was a really good experience and I’m glad I went. Were parts of it more overwhelming than helpful? Yes. Do I have more questions now than before? Yes. Will I ever talk to the people I met there again? Maybe. I think peace is just a thing that is supposed to be confusing and messy and that requires constant revision and critique. By the time I get a job doing peace work, many of the things we talked about will have changed. I just know that devoting myself to peace is what I want and need to do and this conference was just one of the many ways that I can learn more about how to do it.

Conferences are strange things to me because I’m still trying to master the whole “networking” thing. I was once told that the best way to network is to get a life because people are more interested in interesting people. Makes sense to me. And seems like it would make for more interesting conversation than the standard, “what do you do? what are you studying?”. Next week I’m off to Chicago again for…another conference! This time it is the Midwest Political Science Association Conference (I recently learned that the more savvy political scientists just call it Midwest). It definitely won’t be as intimate or focused as NUCHR, but I’m excited about the diversity (and a little intimidated, to be honest). But it should be really fun and informative and hopefully I’ll get around to blogging about it a little quicker than this one.

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